In Remembrance: Ernst Klee (1942-2013)

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 1 (March 2014)

In Remembrance: Ernst Klee (1942-2013)

By Manfred Gailus, Technische Universität Berlin

Ernst Klee, who died in May of last year, was a redoubtable investigative journalist and a noted non-academic historian whose publications did much to expose some of the darker side of National Socialism and its crimes. Originally he studied to be a social worker, and during the 1970s did much to support the lost and homeless inhabitants of his home town Frankfurt, particularly the mentally ill, the handicapped and those suffering from discrimination. But in the 1980s he became well known for his numerous books and newspaper articles about the scandals of the Nazi doctors, especially those involved with the so-called euthanasia programmes, as well as about the Nazi lawyers and what became of them later. He also published a number of items which revealed striking findings about the misdeeds and complicity of church officials and parishioners. The publicity he gained naturally made him enemies among these doctors, lawyers and clergymen in post-1945 Germany. But he persevered in exposing the former compromised careers of many prominent members of the Federal Republic. The number of his books is remarkable. Twenty-five of them were published by the well-known S. Fischer Publishing House. And in 1989 his sharp attack on the churches’ attitudes after 1933 appeared under the title: Jesus Christ’s Storm Troopers: The Churches under Hitler’s Thumb (Die SA Jesu Christi: Die Kirchen im Banne Hitlers). In the book’s foreword, the author was quick to note that “this is not an attack on the church, to which I myself still belong. The Church was not alone in its apostasy. But nowhere else was the hypocrisy so evident of on the one hand claiming to uphold the cause of the poor and weakest in society, while on the other hand in fact abandoning them for the sake of clinging to their own positions of power.”

Particularly notable was Klee’s wide-ranging Encyclopedia of People in the Third Reich. Who Was What Before and After 1945? (Das Personenlexikon zum Dritten Reich. Wer war was vor und nach 1945?). This 750 page volume first appeared in 2003, containing the biographies of 4300 individuals from all sections of German society. In many cases this was the first time the wider public learnt about the activities of some leading figures of the Nazi era and their subsequent careers. Even today these revelations continue to surprise many people, since the individuals concerned have taken great pains to conceal their previous political sympathies or actions. Shortly before his death, Klee was able to finish his last book, published in the autumn of 2013, The Auschwitz Perpetrators and Accomplices, and What Became of Them (Auschwitz: Täter, Gehilfen, Opfer und was aus ihnen wurde: ein Personenlexikon).

It was only to be expected that Klee should have aroused much opposition by his forthright and uncompromising pursuit of truth. On the other hand he was honoured and admired for his dedication, and awarded tributes such as the Family Scholl Prize in 1997 and the Goethe Medallion given by the City of Frankfurt in 2001. Walther H. Pehle, a long-time friend and the reader for the S. Fischer Publishing House, praised him as “an outstanding journalist and significant historian of the Nazi period, whose courageous and innovative investigations were a most valuable contribution towards an adequate knowledge of those dark days.”